September 30, 2020
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, marked the 40th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war last week by praising his predecessor's decision to drink a "chalice of poison." That is, to accept stalemate rather than victory.
The Tehran regime called its eight-year struggle the "holy defense," and the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, adopted the mantra "War, war, to victory." Drinking from the chalice of poison amounted to a painful admission that hundreds of thousands had died and the country had endured profound deprivation all for nothing.
Khamenei's remarks entail a hint that he, too, may be preparing to drink from the poisoned chalice once again in order to save the regime from collapse as its economy once again approaches the edge of an abyss. This time, the poison would be dismantling the country's nuclear program and other concessions necessary to put an end to sanctions.
The Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign has inflicted terrible damage on the Iranian economy and the regime's finances. This is the country's third consecutive year of recession, with a 3.3% contraction in the spring quarter. The annual point-to-point inflation is at 34.4%. The Iranian rial is collapsing, oil revenue is evaporating, the stock market is riding a roller coaster, the coronavirus is spreading, and the population is enraged.
The rial hit an all-time low this Monday in unregulated markets, trading at 294,800 to the dollar. It has lost more than 70% of its value since the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The currency is faring slightly better in a special market called NIMA for importers and exporters, where it trades at 235,000 to the dollar. This offers a better measure of whether the country can afford the imports on which its economy depends.
Yet even there, the rial has lost half its value over the past year. The regime still has hard currency reserves that it can use to pay for imports, but they are shrinking fast. In addition, the central bank continues to dole out hard currency at a deep discount to loyal elites to import basic goods, enabling them to profit from others' desperation.
Whereas the regime could once depend on oil exports for tens of billions of dollars of income a year, sanctions have cut into that deeply. Given that Iran's exports are now illicit, there is considerable uncertainty about just how much crude it is selling. Yet an analysis of public budget reports indicates only 6% of the expected revenue from oil has materialized in the first quarter of the current Iranian fiscal year. Non-oil exports have fallen sharply as well, cutting into another key source of hard currency.
One puzzling aspect of the Iranian economic crisis was the rapid inflation of a bubble on the Tehran Stock Exchange, despite the fundamental weaknesses of a market in its third consecutive year of recession. The underlying cause of this improbable rally was the desperation of middle-class investors to park their savings in one of the few assets that serves as a hedge against both inflation and foreign exchange risk. Yet the market's overall index has fallen 25% over just the last six weeks, raising fears that furious investors would blame the regime for the mess. The regime has already pledged to pour in money from its sovereign wealth fund to stabilize the exchange.
The supreme leader survived two widespread waves of protests over the last three years, yet only after security forces killed more protesters than ever before. Tehran's allies in Lebanon and Iraq are also on the defensive. Israel and the Sunni Arab kingdoms of the Persian Gulf are openly uniting against Tehran.
Less than two years after the return of most U.S. sanctions, the regime has its back against the wall. Four more years of maximum pressure would likely spell the end of the regime. Fed up with constant abuse, corruption, and enforced religiosity, the Iranian people want a more democratic, tolerant, and U.S.-friendly government.
If President Trump loses his reelection campaign, the U.S. may return to the nuclear deal, thereby suspending sanctions and giving the regime a new lease on life, even though the sanctions wall in place means international investors will tread cautiously and not rush to go to Iran. But a Biden victory is far from certain. Khamenei learned from his predecessor that only "heroic flexibility" can save the regime from collapse. As elections approach in the U.S., Khamenei may be preparing the ground for an announcement that the time has come once again to drink from the poisoned chalice.